This story contains SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens featured the much-ballyhooed return of many beloved Star Wars characters, from Luke (Mark Hamill), Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Han (Harrison Ford), to Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2.
For the sequel The Last Jedi, writer-director Rian Johnson managed to resurrect only one more classic Star Wars character, but this time, the cameo was kept top secret until the film's release on Friday: Yoda.
According to Johnson, the decision to bring back the diminutive green Jedi master — who died in 1983's Return of the Jedi — sprang directly from the storyline for Luke in The Last Jedi: Rey (Daisy Ridley) finds the erstwhile hero in self-imposed exile, convinced the Jedi Order should no longer exist and refusing to help her and Leia (Carrie Fisher) in their fight against the First Order.
"Once I realized what Luke's journey was going be, it became pretty obvious," Johnson told BuzzFeed News. "It was like, Who would be the guy who could speak truth to Luke, who could kick his ass and tell him what he needs to hear? And the answer was Yoda."
Johnson's decision to bring back Yoda — albeit in spectral form — would have been momentous enough. But because this was the Yoda from the end of Return of the Jedi, Johnson also decided that the character would have to take the form he took in that movie, as a puppet instead of CGI. And Yoda was performed by Frank Oz, the original puppeteer who first brought Yoda to life in 1980's The Empire Strikes Back.
"Frank Oz was down there in the hole, man, with the [Yoda puppet]," Johnson said with a huge grin. "It was a very joyful experience for me."
For the bulk of George Lucas's prequel trilogy, Yoda was a completely digital creation. (The character was a puppet for the theatrical release of 1999's The Phantom Menace, but by the 2011 Blu-ray release, Lucas had replaced the character with a CG version.) And as Johnson began preparing to shoot Yoda's short scene in The Last Jedi, he began to understand why.
"Going through the process of even doing a two-minute scene, every single shot is a technical battle, and every single emotion you want to convey with the character is the product of a complicated mechanical procedure," he said. "When I first talked to Frank about it, I think he assumed that we would do the CG Yoda. I told him, 'No, no, we want to do the puppet.' He was like, 'Why would you want to do that to yourself?'" Johnson laughed. "It made my mind get blown thinking about how they made The Dark Crystal or how they made any of the Muppet movies."
It wasn't until Johnson got into the editing room, however, that he began to fully comprehend the challenge he had handed himself. "We went through a long period in the editing room of watching the scene and having the frustrating experience of getting it to a certain point and we'd show it to someone new, and they'd say, 'Yeah, it didn't feel like Yoda to me,'" he said. "I guess like with any of the legacy characters, there's a Yoda of the mind that we all have from the original movies. … You don't know how to keep adjusting it, and you don't know whether it's just that people are remembering Yoda a certain way, or that Yoda never actually was that way. Because it's Frank doing it and Frank saying it, so how is it not Yoda?"
So Johnson and his team kept refining, bringing Oz back for multiple voice sessions. "We just worked and worked and worked it until we stopped getting that note," Johnson said. "It was not easy, but it was fun."
"And god, I've got pictures I took just with my film camera on set of Frank there with the Yoda puppet, and Mark lying there," he added with a huge grin. "That's a treasure, man."